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Indians wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk in a market in Jammu, India, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (AP)
Indians wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus walk in a market in Jammu, India, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (AP)

How India’s biggest cities have got back to work

Workplaces are desolate as many office-goers still work from home but new companies and jobs are sprouting across Indian cities

As Indian cities breathe back to life after a once-in-a-lifetime event, they are trying to reclaim what they once took for granted. Much of our urban life revolves around work and commutes. The pandemic-induced lockdown upturned both. Even as workplace mobility gradually recovers across the country, many offices in India’s biggest cities have institutionalized work-from-home norms to ensure business continuity.

The flip side is that offices continue to wear a desolate look. But other indicators suggest a gradual return to normalcy. In September, interest in hiring was the highest in the last six months. In both July and August, registration of new companies exceeded their January 2020 numbers.

The concept of a physical office still remains in flux. In the June-ended quarter, which comprised the worst of the lockdown months, transactions for office space fell 84% and completion of new office buildings declined 87% compared to the March-ended quarter, according to real estate consultancy Knight Frank.

But in the Sep-ended quarter, net absorption of office space increased 64% over the previous quarter, according to real estate consultancy Jones Lang Lasalle. While that’s some respite, it still points to increasing vacancy compared to the pre-lockdown situation. Large tenants, typically, have multi-year rental contracts, and many are waiting to see how the pandemic and business revival play out. Google data shows that workplace mobility in September was the highest since April for all six main districts but it’s still 34-47% lower compared to the pre-lockdown baseline.

A calculation done by Knight Frank for 119 IT companies shows that even if they moved half their employees permanently to a work-from-home arrangement, the net cost saving would amount to only 0.7% of their operating income. The consultancy also flags data vulnerabilities, the loss of tax benefits for organisations in special economic zones (SEZs), and work culture as disincentives to working from home in the long run.

For now, though, organisations have adapted to the new normal. According to technology research firm IDC, for Indian companies with above 500 employees, shipments of laptops increased 106% on a year-on-year basis in the June-ended quarter. Even smaller firms saw an increase, though smaller in magnitude.

Another indication of how work from home has grown is the big spike in use of video-conferencing apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet. In the June-ended quarter, downloads of Zoom, the leader in this space, tripled over the previous quarter. It was also nearly twice as popular social-media apps, according to Sensor Tower, a market intelligence firm.

Search interest for Zoom went much beyond the main metros during the course of the pandemic, Google Trends data show. In January, search interest for Zoom was largely concentrated in only 8 Indian cities, led by Bengaluru. In April, this had increased to 61 cities, led by Delhi and Mumbai satellites. In August, this number reduced as cities unlocked, but still remained at a significant 37 cities.

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), the unemployment rate in urban India increased from 9.7% in January to 25% in April, amid large-scale out-migration of blue-collar and unorganised sector workers. The unemployment rate has been gradually reducing since, and was 8.5% in September.

Jobs portal Naukri.com confirms the growing inclination of organisations to hire. Data for the last six months for the top two searched terms by recruiters on the portal—‘sales’ and ‘Java’—show that recruiter interest was the highest in the second and third week of September. It was almost twice that seen in April and May, the period that saw the worst of the layoffs. And this was true for all the six main metros.

New businesses, too, are seeing an uptick, data from the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA) shows. In January, 8,691 companies and limited liability partnerships (LLPs) were incorporated with the registration authority in these 6 cities. In April, this number collapsed about 75% to 2,125. It stayed subdued in May. It picked up in June. But in July, the number shot past the January 2020 number, with 10,524 new entities being incorporated. August was even better, with 10,704 incorporations.

Some of the surge in July-Aug could be activity that would have otherwise happened in the lockdown months. But it is worth noting that registrations can be done online, and the July and August numbers are better than January numbers in all of the six biggest cities. The increase is the highest in Kolkata and the least in Mumbai, where the hard lockdown was the longest.

Many companies in India are set up with the intention of financial management or as shell firms, rather than with the intent of starting a new business. A crude measure of intent is the percentage of new companies whose paid-up capital exceeds the minimum requirement of 1 lakh. The share of such companies has remained around 20% throughout, suggesting comparable quality in the August set.

The pandemic seems to be influencing the kind of companies that are being set up. Of the 20 sectors in the MCA classification, the top two sectors that registered the highest growth in new incorporations in August (over January) are agriculture and allied activities and manufacturing of food items. Both cater to essentials, and demand for them has been much more robust compared to other products during the course of the pandemic.

In the next few months, where everything settles—jobs, the physical office, new businesses—will largely depend on how the pandemic plays out and how soon demand for goods and services returns to normal levels.

howindialives.com is a search engine for public data

This is the first of a three-part series on post-covid life in India’s biggest cities.

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